Friday, October 30, 2009

Jarek Cunningham

SS Jarek Cunningham was an 18th round pick in the 2008 draft, taken from Washington's Mt. Spokane High. He had a scholarship to Arizona State, but a $100K bonus was enough to get the Spokane native to turn pro.

Cunningham was named an Under Armour Preseason All-America by in 2008, and was on the 2006 US Baseball Stars international team as a sophomore. He hit .397 with seven home runs as a junior, and was selected as "Mr. Baseball" by the Spokane Coaches League in 2007.

He slipped to the Bucs because teams shied away from him due to a knee injury (he had a torn ACL that reattached itself without surgery) that wiped out his senior year. It would come back full-blown later to bite him in 2009.

The 6-1, 185 pound, 19 year-old (he turns 20 on Christmas) had a super 2008 season in Bradenton, where he hit .318 with five homers and 22 RBIs in 43 games with a .507 slugging percentage. He finished ranked as the 13th best prospect in the Pirate organization by Baseball America heading into this season.

Drafted as a shortstop, Cunningham played 11 games at shortstop and 26 games at third in the GCL, primarily to protect his knee. Both positions are a bit of a logjam in the lower minors; they're working him at second base now.

But he tore his ACL again twisting during a conditioning drill at Pirate City in March and missed the entire 2009 season. After some rehab, he went to the chop shop, and everything seems to have worked out fine; they found much of the problem to be with scar tissue remaining from the original injury. He took part in the September Florida Instructional League workouts with no lingering aftereffects.

As with any youngster, he has his strengths and weaknesses. His swing has an arc that will produce a lot of flyballs, good for power, not so good for average. He has a loop in it that the more veteran pitchers he'll meet on the way up will take advantage of, so he has to shorten it up a bit. JK also has a touch of the Garrett Jones bug. He hit .410 and all of his homers with the bases empty, but just .214 with runners on at Bradenton.

He has an excellent arm and adequate range afield, but his footwork leaves something to be desired. That will be one of the keys to what position he ends up at; some scouts think that he's going to eventually outgrow shortstop.

Make no mistake, Cunningham is most valuable to the Pirates as a middle infielder. The Pirates already have Pedro Alvarez and a cast of thousands for the hot corner. But he has more potential firepower at the plate than any of the current Buc SS/2B prospects - Shelby Ford, Brian Friday, Chase D'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Brock Holt.

So we'll watch and see how his knee holds up this season. He's expected to be 100% in the field for the first time in three years, and that bodes well for him sticking in the middle of the diamond. Before his latest injury, John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus predicted that Cunningham would be the Pirate's starting shortstop in 2012. The potential is there, even if the timeline is a bit delayed.

We expect him to start at West Virginia this year, teaming up with Holt as d'Arnaud and Mercer man the middle at Lynchburg. If his leather work is OK and his bat continues to launch balls, the Pirates should promote him aggressively through the system. He has the ability to become a top-ten prospect in 2011.

(Next - Colton "Billy" Cain)

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